The two-edged sword of Christian allegorizing

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by Neil Godfrey

What if a second century attempt to allegorize the Christian holy books had succeeded in the way early Christians allegorized the Jewish scriptures?

Christians from the second century or perhaps earlier have found the roots of their faith in the Old Testament by reading much of it as an allegory of Jesus Christ. Many of them don’t use that word but instead say they read it “spiritually”. They comprehend its “spiritual” meaning. In this way they claimed the Jewish scriptures as uniquely their own. Their allegorical readings and spiritual hijacking of these texts led them to view the Jews as “spiritually blind” and without understanding of their very own books. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 was no longer Israel, but was Jesus Christ whom the Israelites crucified — for which crime they suffered at the hand of Christians for the next two millennia. Israel in the Hebrew Bible was no longer even Israel, but the Church! In this way, through this “spiritual” allegorical reading, the Christians in effect stole the Jewish scriptures and dispossessed their original owners of any right to them.

The Valentinian Christians (mid 2nd C) read the letters of Paul in the same way that “proto-orthodox” Christians read the Jewish scriptures. When Paul spoke of Jews and Gentiles he was not speaking of literar Jews and Gentiles but of different ‘spiritual levels’ of Christians. Gentiles represented “spiritually mature” and Jews were a code for inferior literalist types of Christians who read the gospels literally. (See my earlier post on Elaine Pagels and the Gnostic Reading of Paul for more details.) Other gnostic Christians also read the gospels allegorically. Jesus’ crucifixion was not a literal event but an allegory of an initiate’s spiritual death and resurrection.

So it was fine for that stream of Christianity who eventually evolved into today’s orthodoxy to allegorize and by that method seize the holy books of the Jews. That was merely claiming the roots of their faith. But woe betide any “heresy” that attempted to read their own texts the same way — allegorically, or in their own words, ‘spiritually’! Their own texts needed to allegorize the Hebrew Scriptures for the purpose of creating a “literal” text of their own.

It’s a point worth pondering. If only to better comprehend how Christian origins were purchased with the “literal” expense of the Jews.

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Neil Godfrey

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